Los Angeles County votes to return beach seized in 1924 from black family


Nearly 100 years after a black couple’s beachfront property was confiscated by a Southern California city, Los Angeles County voted unanimously on Tuesday to return the land to the family in this which officials described as an effort to “right the wrongs of the past”.

In an emotional meeting, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to transfer ownership of the land to the great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of Charles and Willa Bruce, who purchased the property, nicknamed Bruce’s Beach, in 1912. in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach, California.

Charles and Willa Bruce used the land to build a resort that other black families could visit without racial harassment. But in 1924, Manhattan Beach officials voted to condemn the land as eminent domain, saying they needed it for a public park.

“It is well documented that this decision was a racially motivated attempt to drive out successful black business and its customers,” the county board of supervisors said last week in a motion to complete land restitution.

The Bruces fought to retain their property through litigation, but failed and lost their business. The City of Manhattan Beach paid them $14,500 and kept the land until it was transferred in 1948 to the state, which transferred it to Los Angeles County in 1955. The county eventually developed a public park on the nearly 7,000 square foot plot.

After Tuesday’s vote, the transfer to the family will be completed after an escrow process, and the county will then lease the property for $413,000 a year while maintaining a lifeguard training facility there. The family has the option of selling the land later to the county for its estimated value of $20 million.

Anthony Bruce, 39, speaking on behalf of his family, called Tuesday “bittersweet”.

“On the one hand, it’s the answer to our prayers,” said Mr. Bruce, a great-great-grandson. “It’s the relief we’ve been waiting for. But on the other hand, it is a reminder of the terrible and tragic events that took place before this happened.

George C. Fatheree III, an attorney representing the Bruces, said in a statement Tuesday that the return of the land would be the first time in American history that a black family has had property returned by a government.

Mr Bruce said he hoped to see cases similar to those of his family in the future.

“I think that should be the start,” he said. “Let it be the drop that creates the ripple that creates the wave that creates the tsunami that covers the country.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, several residents expressed support for returning the land to the rightful heirs.

Duane Shepard, a descendant of the Bruce family, was among those who spoke at the meeting. He said it was a historic day for his family and the country, and he thanked the oversight board and other officials for their work.

“We are eternally indebted to you,” Mr. Shepard said. “Many walked away from us in our fight, but you stood by us in our leap of faith and stood true to our cause in the face of vigorous opposition.”

During the meeting, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor who last year said she was open to land restitution, said she hoped other local governments would follow suit in cases. similar.

“We can’t change the past and we can never right the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago,” she said. “But it’s a start, and by returning ownership to their great-grandchildren, we’re giving them the opportunity to start rebuilding the generational wealth that has been denied to them for decades.”

Returning the property to the rightful heirs has been a long and complicated process that has sparked criticism and debate.

Mr Fatheree said there was ‘no precedent or playbook’ for a case like this.

“We stayed focused on the importance of getting it right,” he said. “We are very proud of the result for the Bruce family, but let’s be clear: we shouldn’t call it justice. No one can reverse the generations of economic loss suffered by this family – there is no way to give back to the family what they have lost.

The descendants of the Bruce family have long called for justice. In June 2020, Kavon Ward, 40, founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach to support the family’s calls for restitution.

In October 2020, City of Manhattan Beach officials convened a task force to examine ways to right historic wrongs. The task force recommended an apology for taking the land, drawing heavy criticism from current residents who said an apology would cast unfair blame on them and the town of around 34,000 who is 75% white, according to the last census. The city council eventually voted 4 to 1 to pass a “statement of recognition and condemnation”, but offered no apology.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano did not respond to requests for comment.

Knowing the land was in the possession of Los Angeles County, Ms Hahn said in March 2021 that she was willing to return the land to the Bruce descendants. She said then that the seizure of the property was “an injustice inflicted not only on Willa and Charles Bruce, but on generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep this beachfront property”.

But returning the land was not possible at the time because the transfer, under California law, would have violated restrictions imposed by the state when transferring the land to the county. This prompted Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator, to announce in April 2021 that he was introducing a bill that would allow the transfer.

Later that month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of the bill – which was unanimously passed by the California state legislature on September 30 and signed into law by the governor. Gavin Newsom – and directed county staff to create a plan to return the property.

This process included a land valuation, property tax assessment and third party retention to determine the legal heirs to the land. The process to determine the legal heir was completed on May 26 and last week the county announced its intention to return the land.

Ms Ward said while the bill was necessary for the land to be returned, it took “bold courage” to raise awareness of the issue. She is now focusing on her new organization, Where Is My Land, which seeks to help black Americans who have had land taken for restitution.

“It started with advocacy and activism,” she said. “Someone had to think outside the box. It took someone brave to say, ‘This was taken, it must be returned.’ »

Jacey Fortin contributed report.

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